Stay versus Selfie: That is the question
One thing I’ve learned though is there are two types of vacations. Stay-cations where you stay for an extended time or selfie-cations where you truck in, drink, party, take pictures and leave.
I like them both.
But I don’t shop and am not big on restaurants. I mostly travel to explore cultures and meet people that I use as characters in my novels. You can’t learn much about a place in a week. In fact, a month is a bare minimum. And meeting people takes some insight, which we’ll get to later.
Staying in a city is not easy.
It requires a different mindset, a paradigm shift from “I’m a visitor” to “I live here.” When I was in my twenties, I worked rotation internationally in the oil industry.
My “home,” so to speak was a small, drab, cinder block apartment in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, by job was in remote desert locations. I spent little time in the apartment.
On rotations, home was where the travel agent, Iqbal, sent me. Once I got wind of what travel agents do, and Iqbal was a friend, I booted him and went solo. I was forced to find places that I could call short term home.
There were ups and downs. Two downs (I tend to make the same mistake twice) were trips around the world.
They sound exciting until you’re on them. A month, massive jet lag and $8,000 later, I could barely remember where I went. I was put in an interrogation room in Hawaii, was double frisked in Bombay, missed my first connection out of Singapore and nearly got killed by a street gang in Manila. On a happy note, I met Vaidehi, who became a character in my novels.
One thing I did get right though, was to go to the same place more than once. I first did this by accident. After going on a trip to Innsbruck with an old girlfriend which turned out to be a total disaster, I went back on a ski holiday with friends. I learned that my first hotel choice was bad, and Innsbruck was a great city for extended stay.
Every city has great bars and restaurants, but Innsbruck has great outdoor activities. Although the skiing isn’t the best, it’s great for cycling, kayaking and my all-time favorite place for hiking and climbing. Austrians are reserved but warm and I had several great friends there.
Since then, I’ve done multiple stays in San Jose, Bogota, Medellin, Pattaya beach, Nuremberg, Maui, Rhodes and the French Riviera. Aside from Costa Rica, which I’ve been to about 5 times and decided not to go back, I loved all the other multi stays.
For the culture hound, though, there are a number of things I’ve learned which I’ll boil down to just 5.
This sounds obvious until you realize that they want you to be a tourist!
A tourist is a sucker and is treated as such. Go on any “travel” site and you’ll find it’s being optimized by an army of Asian software geeks to maximize cash flow. They spend countless hours at a salary of 90 cents per hour trying to channel you into “one stop shopping.”
How does one stop shopping on a selfie-cation cost you?
They know you’re not coming back, so they don’t care if you like the service. I recall once going to Innsbruck, a city I had been to many times and looking for a hotel room. I knew most of the hotels, but they were booked so I went to their information kiosk.
They sent me to a tourist hotel up in the mountains. It was filled with American tourists on the “Tuesday, this must be Austria,” plan. It was like Animal House, literally. People at the pool were blind drunk screaming at the top of their lungs. Now, Americans are typically some of the best tourists, but not the ones on selfie-cations that they booked on whats-amatta travel.
I was once in a restaurant in Brazil that refused to take back spoiled seafood. It was so bad my date and I almost vomited when they put in front of us. When they know you’re not coming back, they’ll serve you horse shit and tell you it’s Filet Mignon.
How do you avoid one stop shopping?
Easy. Go on a travel site and look at their top listings and don’t go there. If a French website is advertising in English in the USA, they’re not looking for repeat customers. They’re looking for selfie-cationers. People that aren’t coming back.
Shy away from websites like Bookings and Hotels dot com. Many of them use highly deceptive advertising and lure you with sales that don’t exist. Very few hotels require you to pay a month before you show up.
For restaurants, I find European restaurants the locals frequent to be very reasonable. Europeans tend to eat meals (versus hamburgers and fries) and their restaurants cater to them. Here in Nuremberg, most of the expensive restaurants are the tourist traps along the river. They’re nice, but you can get the same meal for half the price somewhere else.
One way you can avoid one-stop tourist treatment is to schedule your stay when it’s festival season. In Europe, that’s typically late summer and fall. Festivals cater to locals, are extremely interesting and just the culture education you’re looking for. In southern Europe, there’s literally a festival going on all the time between mid-August and mid-October.
Keep in mind, the new advertising mantra is “maximize the customer experience.” This means suck as much money out of your pocket they can because they’re never seeing you again. Avoid at all cost.
I have taken to using Airbnb quite a lot, which is a site I like but do not love. If you’re using it, skip the five-star ratings and go straight to the one star. You’ll find a lot of useful information there.
One particular place I stayed before I learned my lesson was an iconic flat in southern Germany. It was just like the photos and everything the owner said it would be with two exceptions. First, the staircase would have been illegal in any other country. It was literally, as steep as a ladder. Were that not enough, the bedroom had another staircase that was worse.
Second was the fact that the renter never moved out. The closet was filled with clothes and the refrigerator was filled with food and wine covered in post-it’s that said, “do not eat.” I was staying there for A MONTH!
Keep in mind, most of Airbnb’s renters are not professional real estate people. More often than not they think they’re doing you a favor renting to you.
The important thing to look for in the one-star reviews are keywords like noisy, hot, seedy, uncomfortable bed, no kitchen utensils, no microwave or not close to restaurants.
One other key-phrase I look for is “close to the city center.”
It’s hard to meet people in the suburbs. Any money you save by being outside the city centers you’ll piss away on transportation and inconvenience. You’ll find more detail on this farther down under “How to Save money?”
That said, some one-star ratings are unfair.
The lessor isn’t always wrong. One compliment I got on Airbnb was “tenant was easy. I never talked to him.” I don’t need hand holding and in fact, prefer not to have it. Some travelers think Airbnb is a travel service. They expect to be driven around and shown the sites.
I would suggest that you don’t book for more than a month.
That way you can move. This current trip, a two month stay in Nuremberg, was in two places. Both were fine, but the second was more what I wanted.
For cycle trips, stay in youth Hostels.
You can make an argument for staying in youth Hostels all the time, but they limit your stay. Hostels are awesome. You are guaranteed to meet people and they’ll be interesting. The best I’ve seen are in southern France and Colombia, but my travel buddies tell me the one in Prague is top shelf as are most in southern Europe.
There are a lot of cyclists in Hostels. People who bike together don’t mind dormitory living since they’re all waking up and leaving at the same time. They can also share food, limiting what they’d have to throw out. Hostels have libraries, kitchens and TV rooms. They also have bicycle lockup rooms. Most Hostels have separate rooms for women and girls, as well as separate bathrooms. Many have single or double rooms, like hotels.
I meet a LOT of people. It’s my nature. I’m like to babble and love listening to stories.
But, when you’re a tourist, they know it.
As a single man, I shy away from local women. There are two things about local women that give me pause. First, if they want foreign men, that means they typically want to LEAVE! This is a huge warning sign. If you meet a woman that wants to leave, you’re probably not the first man she’s worked on. Go on her Facebook and look for sex vacations. These are photos of her that are in places where she can get a visa.
Top destinations are the Pyramids at Giza, Spain, Mexico or beaches like Aruba or the French Riviera. These vacations mean she probably traveled with an older man, perhaps married, because it costs a BUNDLE to go there. Another sign of a sex vacation is the absence of friends or family.
If you’re a woman, they obviously want your pants lying on a hotel room floor. You may want this also, but remember, there are far more rapists in the world than you think. They know your screams for help have to travel 5,000 miles before they get to the ears of anyone who cares. Remember, rapists are looking for tourists!
Some of the worse are in Italy and southern France. If you’re going to date a foreigner there, take a friend or a Rottweiler. If you travel in Asia, remember, it’s still a man’s world there. This sounds as sexist as hell, but I have daughters and am not in the business of pulling punches. It’s a lot easier to get in trouble in Asia than you might think if you’re a female.
Another thing to avoid with locals is getting suckered into picking up tabs.
Americans are exceedingly rich and generous. We tip too much. It’s our way. This happens more in the third world than most places, but it’s not that uncommon in Europe. In fact, two weeks ago I had a woman slide her bar tab under my beer glass. It was 50 Euro.
Sometimes you want to pick up the tab. Once, in San Jose Costa Rica I met two 20 something girls one who claimed it was her birthday. They took me to a bar with a Samba band. To make a long story short, in a couple hours the band was sitting at our table, I can’t recall ever having more fun. So, I picked up the tab for a couple poor young girls and a Samba band.
Be careful in the Red-light District.
Notice I didn’t say stay away? I’m not stupid. If you find out it’s there, you’re going if, for no better reason, fascination. So, let me fill you in on the skinny.
Any prostitute under $200 is probably not as fun as masturbating. My main female character in my novel 39 Down is based on a prostitute named Alejandra I met in a very swank restaurant bar in Zurich. She was $3,000 a night in the 80’s!!!
Alejandra was crushingly beautiful, funny, fun and could tease the pants of the Pope. In fact, I didn’t know she was a prostitute until she (laughingly) told me. The people who hire women like Alejandra are so rich they don’t care about money.
I have a (rather perverted) friend that works for a security company in Frankfurt who regularly frequents a place there and revels in showing me pictures. I have to admit, they’re impressive. The place costs 100 Euro to get in. That’s before the sex! He regularly spends 600-700 Euro a night there.
A woman charging $3,000 a night is doing it on her own free will. In fact, I still remember Alejandra saying, “Paul, I think you’re sweet. but you can’t afford me. Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow.”
Any woman that’s charging under 200 Euro for sex is being trafficked. Most European cities have these neighborhoods, as expansion of the Eurozone has flooded the west with Eastern women, and the business is pathetic. It’s a seedy business, the customers are middle aged men on work stays, the women are victims and you can easily end up in a gutter. Beware.
If you’re doing an extended stay, you want to meet people. Here are the places I found the most interesting people.
Authentic Irish pubs.
The people who frequent Irish pubs are often travelers like you. An authentic Irish pub has “your living room” written all over it. Not only are people warm, but they go there to talk. It’s a place where in a few minutes, you’ll be treated like you grew up in the neighborhood.
There is a huge difference a bar that sells Guinness and an authentic Irish pub. How can you tell? First, authentic Irish pubs serve pub food. Potatoes, gravy, dishes with the word “pie” in them.
Authentic Irish pubs have Irish bartenders that are awesome. When you walk in, ask the bartender if he’s from Northern Ireland. If he sneers and says, “there’s only one Ireland,” you’ve hit pay dirt. Don’t worry. He won’t be offended… at least not for very long.
Bicycle tours. (Not races!)
This is especially great in the USA, but it works anywhere. Go into any bicycle shop and ask if they do group bike rides. They all do. They’ll rent you a bike and you’ll go on a ride with anywhere between 20 and 100 new friends. As you’re a “rider,” you’re one of them. You’ve just made a dozen life-long friends.
They have one in Buffalo, NY they run every Tuesday in the summer called Slow Roll. I hate it because it ties up traffic all over the city, but the riders, all 200 love it. Its police guided and runs through Buffalo’s historic areas. The architecture is awesome, and you end up at a pub. If you can’t make friends in Buffalo, you’ve got issues.
Same as above. Great people, absurdly cheap.
Every city has a dozen. You’ll meet people from every walk of life and like you, they’ll also wonder how anyone ever learns a second language. Beware though, many language schools suck. Berlitz does a good job screening teachers. Language schools are worth the money, regardless of what internet trolls tell you.
Intensive learning schools typically run from $400 to $600 per month, which may sound steep, but it’s usually 15 hours of instruction per week in the foreign language.
Stay with reputable ones and don’t do the cheapest unless you have a strong referral. My German teacher was an Italian named Maria-Louisa. She was wonderful and the entire class was mesmerized by her. She was animated, funny, very positive, and had strong lesson plans.
My favorites are (or were) scuba school and ski school. Scuba school took a week, was in Thailand and was hard. The instructor was a Brit and I have to say, he was a total dick. He seemed to believe that we were training for the Olympics.
The class was awesome though. There was a girl that was in the CIA stationed in Bangkok, a couple from Australia on extended stay, and a mix of people from all over the world. We typically met, exhausted, for lunch after the 3 hour a day lesson, and again at night in a pub.
Ski school. Was a week in Saint Moritz Switzerland. The experience of a lifetime.
The class itself was a like a barrel of monkeys. We had a woman we called the girl with the imaginary husband. Every day she said her husband (a banker there for a conference) would meet us for lunch and he never showed up. We had an old man from Israel, probably 70 that only spoke Yiddish. There was a girl from New Jersey that was like Fran Dresher’s twin. The instructor was a stunningly handsome blonde-haired German man who the women swooned over. Unfortunately, he hit on me. He was gayer than an Easter parade.
Our second instructor, in level two, was a Swiss grape farmer in his mid-seventies. He was an amazing man, having skied there his whole life. The second class became very close and every day we would meet in a café called the Stephani on the base of the mountain in St, Moritz. I never really skied before this trip. Now, skiing is an obsession. I honestly wish I could unlearn and join another beginner school!
Others are Surfing school, (Hawaii, Portugal and Australia are good choices.) Paragliding and Jump School.
Some excellent retreats are Buddhist or meditation retreats. One I found a TOTAL riot was a retreat for people who can bring back the dead. (Seriously, it was hilarious!) I was invited by a friend of mine who was a psychic from Chicago. There were over 1,000 psychics there and every single one was great!
The retreat was held at a college during summer recess. I had originally thought that it would be weird, (I have to acknowledge, this stuff doesn’t scare me.) but the people were awesome. When you think about it, people who claim they can bring back the dead are warm, caring people. There were a lot of families. The seances were not really depressing. The people who do these things don’t tell you your dead relatives are coming back to haunt you.
That said, I didn’t connect with any dead relatives. By the way, I don’t believe people can be brought back from the dead, but I met a lot of live people! Maybe it’s just me. I had fun anyway. Hey, it’s a vacation. Go with the flow!
One other I enjoyed was a Buddhist retreat in New York State. I’m a Catholic but I didn’t think the retreat was particularly religious. The Buddhists plow a COLOSSAL amount of money into their retreats, as do Catholics, and this retreat center was 5-star. It was also extremely cheap! It had more than it’s share of snowflakes and pot heads covered with tattoos, but there were a lot of very intelligent, interesting people. I’ve always been fascinated by Buddhist monks largely because they live so long.
This one I have not personally done, but a really good female friend of mine goes every year. She does one in Spain which is very popular called the Camino del Santiago. She goes to find herself. I’m convinced she doesn’t really want to find herself, because she goes back every year even though she still hasn’t.
What’s interesting though, is she comes back with a rolodex full of new friends and a few hours of great stories. She’s been to probably five and her Spanish still isn’t as good as mine and mine is pedestrian. She loves it, nonetheless.
Before I delve into things you probably know, let me just say, traveling cheap when you have to sucks. I always carry $1,000 in cash and usually come home with it. (I use my card in ATM’s.) It’s always nice when you’re tired, cold, and feeling miserable to check into a nice hotel with a hot tub and gel.
That said, extended stay isn’t like selfie-cations. You typically have to budget because you’re probably not working. Here is my not so obvious list of money saving tips.
Limit your drinking.
If you’re accustomed to one-week holidays, this one is hard. If you get drunk every night for two months, you’ll not only break the bank, you’ll kill your liver. Force yourself to stay in your apartment a few days a week.
Cultivate a love for roadside food.
This one is easy for me. The best food I’ve ever had has been empanada’s in Colombia, soup in Thailand, sausages in Austria, ham and cheese baguettes in France and hot dogs in the USA. There’s nothing like range fed steak in Brazil, but if you walk past the restaurant into a street-side alley, you can get the same beef on a stick for $2.
After living on roadside, you’ll realize that you really aren’t that hungry when you’re hungry.
I typically live alone on my stays because I work while I travel, but it’s easy to find travel friends, especially if you’re a woman. One area that’s seldom used is crewing on a sailboat. A friend of mine used to sail a 45-foot catamaran in the Gulf of Mexico. He was always looking for crew. Sailing is a team effort.
Be VERY careful of the bank you use.
I had a US based bank once charge me $700 to take $4,000 out of my ATM in south America, I was stunned.
As much as people love to tell you that they take your bank card everywhere, it’s not true. Not all restaurants take bank cards, especially in Germany. I had my card number stolen in a Sheraton Hotel in Medellin by the hotel clerk!
(Update: I FINALLY resolved an issue with a German bank. It took 30 days!!! I withdrew $300 Euro from their ATM but the money never came out of the machine. Be careful! Some banks don’t allow overseas online access to your account statement so you can’t check transactions in real time!)
Only use money changers as a last resort.
Rick Steves, on his website recommends carrying cash. Even though the comment section is flooded with negative comments I totally agree. But only exchange cash if you have to.
Prior to the Euro and credit cards, money changing was big business and every bank did it. Now, it’s almost criminal. The charge for changing money in some places can be 10%.
If you travel as much as I, eventually, you’re going to have a card problem. Banks are nowhere near as sophisticated as we’d like to believe. For a bit of insight on this, you can read my article “What I learned from a professional hacker,” by clicking here.
(A note on banks: Nothing is more fun than complaining about banks, but keep in mind, banks handle money. When asked why he robbed banks, a famous bank robber siad, “that’s where the money is.” Thousands of hackers spend all day trying to hack banks, so banks build firewalls. These firewalls can be extremely annoying if you are a traveler, but it’s for your protection. For more info, check out my article
Make a list of what you should take.
There are things I refuse to buy in foreign countries. One is clothing. America has the best, most efficient retail sector in the world. Aside from Asian knockoffs which I won’t buy, clothing in Europe is, in many cases, insanely expensive.
You have to remember that casual has a different meaning in most countries than it does in the US. In many countries, especially warm weather countries, Americans dress like (sorry to say this) slobs. Upper class Europeans dress well, even when they’re simply going to coffee shops. Italian women often dress to kill. The same is true in South America.
Middle and upper middle-class Europeans tend to be thin, private and frankly, quite attractive. It’s common to see beautiful well-dressed women in their fifties and even sixties. Men commonly wear styles that would appear gay in the USA outside cities like Boston and San Francisco. Leather pants are common, as are high quality men’s leather jackets. Most men wear shoes or boots and expensive wrist watches.
If you go out in cargo shorts and a tee shirt, you might as well tattoo the word tourist on your forehead. In Europe, many of the people the locals do business with are in the military. The typical American GI is young, uneducated and revels in talking about themselves. As a friend of mine, a pub owner from Greece told me, “Paul, they’re very friendly, but they’re so stupid and they won’t shut up.”
That said, if you’re friendly, well dressed and engage in intelligent respectful conversation, your Facebook friends list will be global! Most people LOVE America.
In many of the places I’ve visited in South America, you pay premium prices for low quality items. Certain things, though, like jewelry, can be a bargain if you know the seller. This is especially true in Colombia, Greece, Italy and most Arabic countries. In Germany, you can find quality leather goods that are expensive but worth it. Another thing are women’s shoes, which are expensive, but the quality is oftentimes worth it.
For many things though, especially beauty items and hair care products, prices in Europe are about the same as the US, even in the tourist centers. My experience in South America has been the opposite.
To summarize, make a list. If you’re a woman and plan on shopping a lot, make sure you have a good credit limit. I can assure you Nuremberg is a shopper’s paradise. There are hundreds of small shops here. Another great place is along the coast in Thailand. But in terms of quality and price, the USA leads the pack.
Learn how the hierarchy of grocery stores works.
In the USA, we have high end grocery stores like Whole Foods who charge break-neck prices and Walmart which sells 30 packs of light beer. Somewhere in the middle is a store like Wegmans, that sells high quality food at quality prices.
Most countries have the same hierarchy. You can figure it out pretty fast and in an extended stay, the savings is significant.
Finally, spend a good deal of time on planning the whole trip.
By this I mean, ALL travel prices for your entire itinerary. For example, this last extended stay of mine, I was in Buffalo and wanted to go to Europe for a German language course. This meant I had to stay in either Germany, Austria or Switzerland.
I judged that Switzerland, a country I love, was not worth the money. It’s not worth paying $3,000 a month rent to learn a language. Austria, one of my favorite places on earth was too far south for other things I wanted to do. (Writing, genealogy and side trips.)
That left Germany. Munich was too expensive due to Oktoberfest. Berlin was too far north. I settled on Nuremberg a city had had never been to. (And now love!)
I flew out of Boston Logan. That was not only the cheapest quality flight, (I don’t fly on budget airlines) it gave me a chance to see Boston and visit my daughters. I flew to Frankfurt, the cheapest destination Lufthansa had, which had a 30 Euro train connection to Nuremberg. Those three connections, Buffalo, Boston, Frankfurt saved me $400.
A full fair flight on Lufthansa cost the same as a “cheap” flight once I added in baggage costs. On the return to Buffalo, a first-class seat was $10 more than economy when baggage was added in.
In Europe, you can buy a Eur-rail pass, but if you want to save money, busses are so cheap, you won’t believe they are real. You can actually get a bus ticket from Nuremberg to Prague for about $10 US. Also, rail passes have weird pricing. A Reisecard, which allows you to change the time you travel is twice as expensive as a regular ticket, but if you’re AT the train station, you want the next train. Why pay double the price?
Another reason I chose Nuremberg is they had the best rated language schools for the price I found on Google. Nuremberg’s restaurants are a fraction of what they are in Munich. Nuremberg’s apartments were about 2/3 of the price of a similar apartment in either Berlin or Innsbruck.
Do you see the pattern here?
Write out your entire itinerary. All the things you might want to do. You don’t have to stick to it, as I don’t. I was planning on a month in Spain but had a great German teacher and stayed where I was. But I saved well over $1,500 Euro by planning the trip on a cost benefit basis. I also saved a lot of money in clothing. I knew what I wore in the US wouldn’t work here so for three months I sat patiently while US retailers put 100% wool pants and leather jackets on sale for 70% off.
I also learned a lot. Next years Europe tour will be three months and I’ve already made contact with a rental agency outside Airbnb that does short term rentals to people on short work stays. The money I have will almost pay for a BMW rental, as well as a cycle trip across southern Europe.
I know enough German to get by and can ask directions without having to find an English speaker. I have a couple dozen new friends from countries as diverse as South Africa, Norway, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, England, Scotland, Australia and Colombia.
In the process, I was able to do what we all want to do when we travel. Learn the culture of the countries we visit and make lifelong friends. That’s what travel friends are. Buddies forever.
One last thing;
A line I really like was written by Paul Simon and it goes, “Traveling is all inside your head she said to me.” My mother once told an old girlfriend of mine, “go on a vacation with him. If you’re still dating when you get back, he’s a keeper.”
Traveling isn’t easy. This is why so many people go to all inclusive vacations or selfie stays. Yes, people DO get homesick on vacation, and not just kids. The people speak different languages, the money is different colors and different sizes. I was in O’Shea’s, an awesome pub here in Nuremberg and an American couple was sitting next to me. The man, after 10 minutes of strained staring at the menu ordered chicken wings.
Europeans, especially young girls, plan their entire lives around vacations. For a 24-year-old girl, a week in New York is a lifelong dream. To them, being frugal all year long for a trip is a no brainer.
Make your trip a brainer. You’ll love yourself for it.